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Administration Says 700,000 Have Applied For Obamacare Coverage

The Obama administration said Thursday that 700,000 people have completed applications for coverage in the health law’s new marketplaces — a key step before people can begin shopping for insurance plans.

But a spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services refused to break out how many of these applicants came through the 14 state-run insurance marketplaces, which are functioning, versus the beleaguered website operated by the federal government on behalf of 36 states. The application process determines if a user is eligible for a federal subsidy or for the state-federal Medicaid program.

In the first telephone press conference with reporters since the launch of the exchanges more than three weeks ago, Julie Bataille, director of the CMS Office of Communications, said the agency is “confident consumers will be able to apply and enroll, certainly by Dec. 15.”

That’s the deadline for people to enroll if they want coverage starting Jan.1. Open enrollment runs through March 31.

The government did not conduct full-scale testing of the website until two weeks before the Oct. 1 launch because of the “compressed time frame,” and the agency did not know the extent of problems until the system became overwhelmed immediately afterward, Bataille said. “The system wasn’t tested enough, especially for high volumes,” she said.

Bataille did not offer details about why the website wasn’t ready more than three years after the passage of the health law in March 2010. “We do not want to look back,” she said. “The focus right now is to get this right and get Americans affordable health insurance.”

According to Bataille, the federal data hub, which checks an applicant’s identity, immigration status and income, is working well. She said the agency made the decision, near the launch date, to turn off a “window shopping” feature that would have allowed website users to see detailed prices and information about plans without going through the cumbersome process of setting up an account and applying for coverage.

“CMS had to make a business decision … there was a need for us to prioritize the full application process,” she said.

Millions of people have been stymied by the website’s malfunctions and have been unable to complete the application process.

Bataille stressed the agency is making fixes to the website to make it work smoother. “We know the experience on has been a frustration for many Americans,” she said.